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Ignorance no defence for businesspeople when it comes to legal obligations

Law courses offer practical grounding in law and how it affects enterprises

Businesspeople need to be as familiar with the law as they are with balance sheets in these highly regulated times. Lockdown and the pandemic have added some new legal complexities facing the hard-pressed modern business executive but it seems some knowledge of the law, while no replacement for sound legal advice, could potentially keep a business out of danger.

To stay competitive, a practical understanding of the relevant domestic and European Union legislation is essential. There are basic processes in today’s business environment that are highly regulated and can be difficult to comprehend and implement.

The employment relationship from recruitment to termination, how you process and store company and personal data, and the way you communicate with your partners and the wider public are just some of the areas that many employees, company directors and self-employed individuals must know about when processing day-to-day business information.

Just as everyone must understand the rules of the road, all professionals must understand how the law governs their work practices, says Eimear Brown, dean of the school of law at King's Inns.


“Over the last year alone, many legal complexities have arisen for modern business executives. With many staff working remotely, workers’ rights and how business and personal data is stored and transferred internally and externally has presented some obstacles as we all work more electronically,” she says.

“With the recent enforcement of GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] alone, all companies now need to understand and learn how to navigate the domestic and EU law around data and apply the necessary changes to their day-to-day business operations. For example, as many businesses are now trading online, do they have the right cookie policy in place or a data-protection statement listing how they process and store personal data from their customers?”

GDPR and employment law are not the only areas relevant to the modern business, however. Public procurement; best practice around the use of social media; laws regulating white-collar crime; and a knowledge of the Irish immigration law framework are all areas of importance to business. Those involved in planning, engineering and construction or in the provision of education also benefit from an in-depth subject-specific knowledge of the law.

Law courses

For that reason, many people are participating in law courses to gain a better understanding of legal matters pertaining to their business and over the last 10 years King’s Inns has designed courses that help professionals learn the practical application of the law from expert practitioners who are working in the relevant fields.

“It is best for any business to understand the law before any legal scenario might arise so that they can anticipate and identify situations where they may need to seek the assistance of a legal professional,” Brown says.

“While completing an advanced diploma course at King’s Inns will not qualify a participant as a lawyer in that field, it will assist the professional in their overall knowledge of the area and may help them to recognise and avoid potential problems, as well as scenarios where it is imperative to seek the outside counsel of an appropriate professional.”

Pretty much every business course will have a law module to some extent nowadays. This in itself demonstrates the importance of having a basic knowledge of the law when operating a business, says John Lynch, managing partner at law firm Whitney Moore.

How the law impacts on business covers many aspects – for some businesspeople it means knowing about corporate governance requirements, Companies Acts obligations or even trading while insolvent.

“The most common situations arise in the employer-employee relationship. How equality legislation interacts with recruitment; that every employee must have a statement of their terms of employment and what should be included in that statement; maternity, paternity, parental leave obligations; grievance and disciplinary procedures; retirement ages and if and when an employer can apply a mandatory retirement age. In reality, legal issues impact at every stage of the employment relationship,” Lynch says.

Echoing Brown, he says the coronavirus pandemic has led to rapid changes in work practices, and has raised a myriad of legal issues that every employer needs to be aware of.

“An employer is required to provide a safe place of work; that applies equally when the employee is working from home. So how does the employer go about ensuring that the place of work is safe when that place is the employee’s kitchen, living room or garden shed?

“We are now 12 months into these new arrangements – team meetings, performance reviews, grievance procedures and even disciplinary hearings are being done by video meetings. What changes does that need – does everyone have to agree to record a meeting, or who attends? Remote working also raises new challenges in the fight against cyber crime.

"Meanwhile, some multinationals have identified potential tax issues where staff working from home are actually based outside Ireland, and even outside the EU," Lynch says.

While there are many law courses available to professionals that will help around these matters, King’s Inns offers 13, with everyone from administrators and secretaries to company directors and board members enrolling.

Media law

“Data-protection law and applied employment law are areas that affect almost every business and public body. Social media and media law are of increasing general importance in a society where nearly every business relies upon media for some aspect of its business, whether that be promotion or customer service or the direct provision of services. It would be of particular interest to PR experts, journalists and media representatives, digital marketing and communication executives,” Brown says.

Other courses attract a cross-section of participants from different backgrounds. For example, a course in public procurement law is of use to parties affected by the law from all angles, whether they are considering tendering for public and private service contracts or making them. Planning and environmental law is important to county councils and planning bodies on one hand and to architects, engineers and developers on the other.

Some courses are of particular importance to those working in a specific field, including medical law, attended by clinicians, hospital administrators and in-house counsel, corporate, regulatory and white-collar crime, which would be of particular interest to the Department of Finance, gardaí and the banking sector, immigration and asylum law, attended by representatives of NGOs, lawyers and civil servants, and law and education which would be of use to principals, home-school liaisons, educational NGOs, teachers of all levels and anyone involved in school administration.

“We value innovation and pride ourselves on anticipating the needs of the market. In light of the steady increase of the importance of quasi-judicial bodies such as the Residential Tenancies Board, we launched a course in quasi-judicial decision-making in 2019. That practical course has attracted lawyers and non-lawyers from a wide range of fields, from finance to the health service,” Brown says.

“Our current projects include designing a new course around mediation, which would appeal to people who would like to be equipped to mediate not only legal disputes, but also disputes between members of a club, society or other body. We also plan to launch a course in legal technology and innovation, starting this autumn.”

There is an old adage: ignorance of the law is no excuse and John Lynch says that while businesspeople will not know all of the complexities, nor the finer legal issues that arise, with some grounding and a little experience they will know when to talk with their lawyer to get specialist assistance.

“It can be very helpful when running a business to regard your lawyer as one of your business advisers, and keep them on speed-dial. It might help keep you focused on your business and away from conflict in the courts,” he says.

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times